How to Be an Empowered Patient

Advice from experts about how to advocate for yourself in a hospital.

Doctor and patient

[Read 9 Signs You Should Fire Your Doctor]

Ask probing questions. Demand evidence. Don't be shy about politely asking your doctor about his or her medical credentials, or look them up in the U.S. News Doctor Finder. Respectfully requesting information is vital for becoming an empowered patient. Before any procedure, ask your doctor how many of the procedures he's done and about his death and complication rates.

Brian Radbill, vice chairman of quality and associate professor of nephrology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, says doctors shouldn't react defensively, but should disclose the information honestly to built trust with patients.

If you're getting surgery, you should find out what will happen during the operation and what to expect afterward, including whether you will need any supplies or a caregiver when you get home, says Jaclyn Mucaria, senior vice president of ambulatory care and patient centered care services at New York-Presbyterian University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell.

Speak up. Make sure your doctor explains your treatment plan in simple language. Doctors may use medical jargon that is confusing, so it is important for you to let your doctor know when you don't understand. If the doctor is rushed, you can try another approach. "Say, 'Doctor, I see you're in a hurry, but I still have questions, how should I get them answered?'" says Torrey. When you're in the hospital, you can ask your doctor or someone else from your medical team to stop by later, says Tejal Gandhi, president of the National Patient Safety Foundation.

If you witness unsafe behavior during a hospital stay, report it. Even a doctor or nurse who fails to wash hands between patients can pose a significant health risk. The CDC reports that hospital patients get 2 million infections each year, many of them from lax handwashing practices. Cohen, of CNN, suggests using humor. "Try, 'Doctor, I'm a germaphobe like Howie Mandel. Sounds crazy, but I'd like to see you wash your hands,'" she says.

When you're in the hospital, keep track of all medications and tests administered to you. Make sure you are being given what you and your physician discussed, and that you agreed to it. Don't sign a consent form for a test or procedure until your questions are answered. Cohen tells patients to be blunt. "Say: 'I don't think I'm supposed to have this procedure and would hate for you to get in trouble for doing it,'" she says.

Tap friends or family. Someone should go with you to important medical appointments. Doctors say that patients often absorb only a fraction of the information they're given, especially when the news is upsetting. It's important to take notes, so that you can refer back to them when speaking to your physician, doing additional research or getting a second opinion. Your support network is essential during periods when you can't easily care for yourself.

In cases of particularly difficult surgery, patients should make sure they have given someone they trust the legal authority to make health care decisions if they become unable to do so, says Lynne Thomas Gordon, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association. They also should create a living will, a legal document that details what treatments a patient does and doesn't want, such as tube feeding or ventilation support.

[Read How to Keep Your Loved One Safe in a Hospital]

Leverage resources. Hospitals have social workers, case managers, patient liaisons and other advocates who can help you get your questions answered, identify helpful resources and mediate disputes when necessary. They also help in critical transitions, such as from the intensive care unit to a patient room or from the hospital to home or a skilled nursing facility. Some patients may decide to hire a private health advocate, but they can be expensive, costing from $75 to $500 an hour. A patient advocate who is also a physician will charge more than one who isn't medically trained, says Torrey, who says she deals with advocates from many backgrounds with different skills. For patients with chronic or life-threatening conditions who can't afford to hire a private advocate, one option is to go through a nonprofit organization, such as the Patient Advocate Foundation, which provides services without cost.